The Intimacy Illusion

The Intimacy Illusion

I want to talk about intimacy.


When I say “want to,” I actually mean “would prefer to pull my own toenails out with pliers than.” Why would anyone ever want to talk about intimacy? After all, the best thing about the dreams in which you suddenly realize you’re naked in public is waking up from them and realizing they never happened. Whew.


But if you’re reading this, I bet you already know why: intimacy is the most insidiously fucked-up part of life with an alcoholic, and it’s so hard to talk about that some of us would rather part with pieces of our own bodies than even start that conversation.


Our most recent Echoes of Recovery writing prompt was: write a letter to the future you. And I realized something about myself, in the context of a group that is largely, collectively fighting to save their relationships.


I am the future me.


I already know how this ends: the verbs for my relationship are all past tense.


I also realized that I, the past me, had already written many letters to the future me, long before the prompt.


In fact, the past me kept meticulous records. I am grateful for her diligence now as I’m sorting through the debris, reconstructing the full account of what happened, and building the framework for what comes next. She left scrupulous diaries of daily life, snapshots of memories and dreams that would have been gone like a wisp of smoke in a strong wind. 


I’ve gotten such an abundance from her. I wish I could flip the arrow of time around, so I could talk to her as easily as she can to me.


A small part of the message to her would read:


“You never got used to surprises. So please understand: he is saving the worst for last.


That tweet, from the account he’s blocked you on again, will read:


‘Okay, had a debate with a female friend. She says men can’t fake orgasms. As a man yes we can. I have faked several in my life. … If it turns out the relationship is ending I fake. I faked 3 times with my ex the last time we did it.’


Yes, you’re the ex. No, that’s not how I remember the last time, either.


You’ve been reading his tweets since he blocked you, the day you announced that you were contacting a lawyer. Well-intentioned friends will tell you to stop doing that. Love them, but do not listen to them. These are things you’ll need to know.


Since humor is an excellent coping mechanism for pain, you’ll share this tweet with the family on your weekly Zoom, and try out some new material.


Like: ‘Pro tip: Don’t ever throw down with the wife of a drunk over who’s faking more orgasms.’


And: ‘The only thing stiff in this house after 10 p.m. was the drinks.’


They’re funny only as far as they hurt. But the concern, laughter, and frank disbelief of your family feels so good, you won’t even cry on the recounting.


(Oh, and don’t worry, Dad does survive this Zoom without perishing utterly from embarrassment.)”


Our first time, John and I, it was still 95 degrees at midnight, the climax of an unseasonably hot northern California day in May. It just wasn’t possible to care about the sweat.


“You’re so passionate,” he said, gazing up at me with what seemed like amazement.


“It’s you,” I said, going in for another kiss.


I read a long time ago that office romances are particularly common because humans stand out so beautifully from the drab uniformity and hard corners of cubicles, desks, and aisles. They’re lovely islands of blood, bone and flesh in a monotonous sea of bleached wood pulp, molded plastic, and fluorescent light.


John and I met in an office. It was love at first sight: a jailhouse romance, all our dreams were about getting out. Out of his debt, out of my bad relationship, out of town, certainly out of this fucking job, our gorgeous bags of organs gleaming in the dull gray fortress that had no chance of holding us.


Of course we broke out.


For years, it was good. The kind of good that wakes you up in the middle of the night. The kind of good where every piece of furniture is fair game. The kind of so damn good that you stop hiding the stretch marks from your sudden teenage weight gain because he says they look wild like tiger’s stripes.


It was still that good the first time he accused me of cheating on him. I’d worked late training for a new position, and the hair I put up in a bun that morning after my shower was still wet when he took it down for me as we fell into bed.


It was a hot day. He was sure I’d been sweating, someplace I shouldn’t have been.


In a sudden sickening sideways lurch, I was angry and hurt. I told him there was nothing further from my mind or heart. He curled sideways on the bed, and said he didn’t know why trust was so hard for him.


There was nothing that night in bed but a black cloud.


I trusted him absolutely. It had never occurred to me that he didn’t trust me. 


I thought it was still mostly that good when I emerged from our bedroom, clad head to toe in the entire tiny ensemble from the cover of the latest Victoria’s Secret catalogue. It included stockings and garters (though surely invented by a sadistic lover of upper-thigh muffin tops, they always held a particular fascination for John), and a pair of four-and-a-half-inch black stilettos, the soles of which barely ever made contact with the floor unless they were sitting in the closet.


He’d sometimes request that I put on different items from a growing selection of lingerie that he’d gifted me. This time I intended to surprise him. He seemed pleased at first, and set his drink down. But initial appreciation gradually turned to frustration, and he gave up. I was about to ask him to just cuddle instead.


“Don’t spring it on me like that again,” he said, before I could get the words out, and his anger felt like the glowing cherry of a cigarette pressed into skin. He got up and got another drink, or probably several. I fell asleep by myself.


I’m not the only one who never got used to surprises.


The illusion that it was good began fading particularly during late evening sessions, his sweat, smelling of booze, dripping on me. The opposite of exciting, it felt like he was toiling in the salt mines. So I found myself starting to fake orgasms, so he’d finish.


(In the future, he’ll say he’s faking because it’s over. I was faking because I didn’t want it to be over. 


It’s still a lie, I know. I don’t get a pass.)


I eventually figured out that we should just have sex in the mornings, so the alcohol had time to wear off. It felt normal. Lovely, even. Together in the first light of day, a great start, and I didn’t even have to fake it. Usually.


For years, sex wasn’t even a thought. He was too sick. We’d long since been sleeping in separate beds.


There was one odd glitch in the celibacy, though. He’d finally been diagnosed with hepatic encephalopathy. It has four stages: symptoms of the second include disorientation, amnesia, and “uninhibited behavior.” I thought at that time, it would be brutal if it were contagious, because it carries its own perfect infection mechanism: abject horniness. In Stage 2, he absolutely could not keep his hands off me. He started sneaking into my bedroom and waking me up in the middle of the night. Exhausted, I finally told him he could get it any time before I went to bed, but after I was asleep, I was off-limits. That same night, he came to my bed again, and I kicked him out. He was outraged.


But not for long. Stage 3 is largely catatonic. It almost felt like a return to normal.


After transplant surgery and recovery, we were finally able to come back to it. But it had been so long and so much had changed I felt like a virgin with ten left thumbs. That one time he wanted to try something different, I was all for it. It was a bright sunny afternoon in my bedroom, and he was strangely shy about the scar on his abdomen, so I pressed my own scar against his.


“It’s okay, we’re a matching set.”


There was more Is that it? Is this right? How about now? than I can remember from any time before. There was also a ton of laughter. I thought how good he smelled, how wonderful it was to touch his skin. I easily saw doing this for the rest of our lives.


It’s this time he’s talking about in that tweet: our last time.


When I realized he’d gone back to drinking after the transplant, I told him that sex was over, until he’d regained my trust.


But I wanted to keep a door open, so I suggested cuddling instead. He agreed. We’d spend an hour or so every night, just lying in bed, clothes on, being close, trying to rebuild. It started out beautifully, just warm and quiet. Together. 


It didn’t last. 


“Take your clothes off.” 


“Take your bra off.” 


“Take your panties off.” 


I stopped there though, panties firmly on, the strictest I’ve ever been with my own virtue. In the ensuing wheedling and cajoling, I wondered how far this person was from someone who’d slip Rohypnol in your vodka tonic at the bar.


I was really rather relieved when he ended up in the hospital again. There’d been an odd artifact in an image taken during a regular follow-up, so they held him overnight. He was in a bed when they got the blood test back that showed a stunning level of alcohol abuse, apparent in the liver enzymes. They held him, waiting for the enzymes to normalize. I drove two hours every day for a week, so we wouldn’t miss cuddling. 


His last day in the hospital was our last cuddle. 


He went into an intensive outpatient program, the condition of release from the hospital. There was no time or energy for cuddling.


It wasn’t long before we saw a marriage counselor. He showed up a half-hour late to our first session, and said in a later session that we might as well get divorced because we weren’t even having sex anymore.


The final part of the message to the past me would read:


“After all we have been through, you and I would finally both rather know the hard truth rather than a lovely lie. And when, in the future, you bend back to the romantic that is in you, you will think that the most loving thing, the most romantic thing he was capable of was making you hate him, giving you the power to leave him. Really leave him.


“So that you, and I, can have our future.”


If you love or loved an alcoholic, and intimacy is or was an embarrassing, unspeakable issue, join us in the safe space we call Echoes of Recovery. You deserve healing.

Echoes of Recovery

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